She entered her first music contest in Canton, N.C., when she was still playing her “cheap 10 cent banjo,” Samantha Bumgarner told a Sylva [NC] Herald reporter years later.
“And here I looked up and saw all these fine banjos coming in from Asheville. I wanted to leave, but they wouldn’t let me. I tell you I was so nervous I didn’t know I was hitting the strings. … But I won that contest. And I’ve been winning them ever since.”
Samantha’s father Has Biddix played the fiddle, but had not been keen for his daughter to take up that instrument, still in the late 19th century nicknamed by some “the Devil’s Box.” Samantha recalled that she did “sneak” the fiddle out to practice on her own. Has allowed her to have a banjo, at first home-made— “a gourd with a cat’s hide stretched over it and strings made of cotton thread waxed with beeswax”—later replaced by the aforementioned cheap store model.
It took awhile for the promising young musician to gain widespread recognition, though. She was 37 years old when Columbia Phonograph Company took notice of her and invited her and Eva Smathers Davis to New York City to record for them.
Bumgarner was probably the first Appalachian banjo player of either sex to cut a commercial record. In April 1924 she and Davis recorded 10 songs for Columbia, playing frailing-style banjo on six of the tunes, including “Shout Lou” and “Fly Around My Pretty Little Miss.” Columbia billed them as ‘quaint musicians’ in their subsequent promotional ads two months later in ‘Talking Machine World’ magazine. “The fiddle and guitar craze is sweeping northward!” it cried. “Columbia leads with records of old-fashioned Southern songs and dances.”
The Columbia playlist:
Big-eyed Rabbit (Samantha Bumgarner & Eva Davis)
Cindy in the Meadows (Samantha Bumgarner & Eva Davis)
Fly Around My Pretty Little Miss (Samantha Bumgarner)
The Gamblin’ Man (Samantha Bumgarner)
Georgia Blues (Samantha Bumgarner)
I Am My Mother’s Darlin’ Child (Samantha Bumgarner & Eva Davis)
John Hardy (Eva Davis)
Shout Lou (Samantha Bumgarner)
Wild Bill Jones (Eva Davis)
Worried Blues (Samantha Bumgarner)
Her recordings were made only one month after OKeh records had produced tracks by Fiddlin’ John Carson and his Virginia Reelers, considered the first “hillbilly” recordings to be commercially marketed in the United States. Thus not only should Bumgarner be considered the first “banjo-pickin’ person” to record and reach a mass audience, but one of the earliest Southern mountain musicians to make it to the studio as well.
Although she never received critical acclaim, Bumgarner was obviously an inspiration for other women in the Southern mountains, who would emerge a decade later as some of the nation’s most popular entertainers.
Click here to listen to an MP3 of Big Eyed Rabbit, by Bumgarner/Davis
Yonder comes a rabbit,
Fast as he can run,
If I see another one,
Gonna shoot him with a double-barrel gun.
Gonna shoot him with my gun.
Yonder comes a rabbit,
Slippin’ through the sand,
Shoot that rabbit, he don’t care,
Fry him in my pan,
Fry him in my pan.
Rockin’ in a weary land (x2)
or Big-eyed rabbit’s gone, gone (x2)
Yonder comes my darlin’,
How do I know?
Know her by her bright blue eyes,
Shinein’ bright like gold,
Shinein’ bright like gold. (Tommy Jarrell/Plank Road String Band).
Bob Woodcock (Pa.) supplied this verse (a coney is an old English term for a rabbit-Coney Island=Rabbit Island):
Coney on the island, coney on the run,
I’ll get that rabbit in my pan, I’ll shoot him with my gun
MP3 from Archie Green Collection, Southern Folklife Collection/Wilson Library/University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill